Kano: Time will tell
This is Kano’s moment.
Fifteen years since he first broke through with his sublime single Ps and Qs, the 34-year-old rapper, born Kane Robinson, is preparing to play one of the biggest gigs of his career. A lot has happened in that intervening period as he’s moved from grime’s sharp newcomer to its beloved veteran. The gig, which forms the focal point of his imminent UK tour, will take place at the Royal Albert Hall – that symbol of a particular British cultural institutionalism. The record he will perform is Hoodies All Summer, a seminal, politically-charged record that many of his critics and peers are hailing as a masterpiece. Surely, at such a heady time in his career, he must be basking in the acclaim?
Well, not quite. On the morning he meets Crack Magazine, Kano just seems, well, a little tired. We meet in a vast studio on the edge of west London, where he and his band are going through the paces for his upcoming gigs. He is taciturn, perhaps pensive; since he seems preoccupied, it feels wrong to bother him with small talk. Awaiting a lunch delivery, he pads slowly across the kitchen. “How do you like your coffee?” he asks politely, awaiting a nod after each question. “Milk? Sugar?”
Right now, you couldn’t imagine him as the lyricist whose light-speed flow has caused countless punters to spill their pints in excitement. His dress code is equally subdued; true to the lyrics on Pan-Fried, one of his album’s standout tracks, there is no shine on his neck. He is kitted out in a dark hoodie and nondescript tracksuit bottoms, rounded off with a pair of crisp white trainers; he looks not so much like a superstar MC as a triathlete on his day off.
If he does look tired, then maybe that’s because it has been a long road. A road that began with rhyming on rooftops and in stairwells as part of east London’s storied N.A.S.T.Y Crew, before side-stepping into arenas and stadiums thanks to high-profile collaborations with mainstream artists like Benga and Chase and Status. Regarded as a grime pioneer and elder statesman, his work has constantly striven to push the genre forward. He’s even carved out a career as an actor, most notably in Top Boy, the BAFTA-nominated crime drama. When we meet, Netflix has only just released the third season, once again starring Kano as the sensitive yet troubled Sully, alongside three other leading British musicians in the form of Dave, Little Simz and Bashy.
Right now, though, he’s briefly at rest. We find a quiet room, away from the rehearsals, to talk. My first question is obvious: how is he handling the fanfare?
His response is characteristically low-key: “I didn’t go to the Top Boy premiere, because I was doing something else,” he says. For all his visibility, it sometimes seems that Kano is something of a hermit. I’m reminded of a lyric from This Is My Life, off his 2007 album London Town, where he remarks that “the hype’s too much for me”. Could it be that he simply doesn’t enjoy fame that much? “I just care about good work,” he says with a gentle shrug, “and moving forward.”
For an artist who cares about looking to the future, Kano’s latest work does a remarkable job at capturing the present. When work commenced on Hoodies All Summer three-and-a-half years ago, he and the album’s two producers, Jodi Milliner and Blue May, were very clear on its musical direction. “We just knew how we wanted it to sound,” he says. “We spoke about pressure, the directness, the urgency – and just [being] bold.”
This record roams across a wide range of personal and political themes. There is the trauma of knife crime on Trouble, whose 19-minute video – finishing with an astonishing live rendition of Class of Deja – was greeted with rapture. There is the anguish of being told by racist politicians to “go home” on SYM, and the pride of working class life and perseverance on the Kojo Funds-featuring Pan-Fried. It was important to him, rather than making a collection of party anthems, to make something which spoke to the seriousness of the times. This is not only because he is a deft social commentator – just see Seashells In the East on Made In the Manor, where he tackles the unfairness of Britain’s class system – but because he wishes to make a complete body of work.
If his albums can be seen as a growing library of books, with his third album, 140 Grime Street, a textbook for the genre’s purists, then Hoodies All Summer is his most meditative novel to date. To create it, he went to a place of deepest possible reflection, composing the bulk of the lyrics by night, when everything else around him was at rest. His efforts seem to have paid off. “Sometimes the intention you have from the beginning is missed on the listener,” he says. “But with this one people are experiencing the album exactly as we wanted them to.”
Kano’s process of music-making is very different from the spontaneous approach taken by other great artists. “There’s a famous saying by Tupac,” he recalls. “[Tupac] was like, ‘Whatever the last word I say is, we make that the name of the track.’ Others, they just come and give their burst of genius and they bounce, you know what I mean? I’ve heard Nas is a bit like that. Maybe that’s their way… but I’m down to spend eight hours EQing the reverb.” Having listened back to years of his musical choices – say, the wildly experimental sounds on London Town, or the way he raves about the garage sample on the live version of Teardrops/Bang Down Your Door – it’s hard not to conclude that Kano is basically a geek. He bursts out laughing at this accusation – which confirms that he is guilty as charged. Kano is a strikingly physical talker, his hands often accompanying his speech, and at various points drumming on the table in emphasis.
Given the consistently high quality of Kano’s work for well over a decade, it is a wonder at times that, though widely respected, he’s not even more celebrated. “Either I’m underappreciated, or underpublicised,” he muses. “Or, if I really want to look at it – ‘cause I’m like this – I can take it on myself and say maybe it’s something I’ve done, maybe I’ve underachieved.” It is a startling admission, but it’s delivered without an inch of self-pity. He speaks, instead, with the dispassionate tone of a magistrate delivering a verdict. This, though, is the price of perfectionism; to have sold out the Royal Albert Hall in a matter of minutes, but still yearn for satisfaction.
One area where Kano does seem wholly satisfied, as both an artist and an individual, is in his sense of home. This is a recurring theme for Kano on this record, as indeed throughout his career. Sometimes this is explicit, like in the title of his debut album, Home Sweet Home, or his shoutout of his childhood address: “86 St Olaves Rd, next door to Theresa, across the road from Pam” on New Banger, from his previous album. But it can also be subtle, expressed in his choice of collaborations. For example, artists like Popcaan, with whom Kano shares Jamaican roots. When I ask him about his constant nods to the Caribbean island, Kano smiles: “Jamaica was the beginning of my musical inspiration,” he says. “That’s where I fell in love with music, really.” He recalls how he started going there on holiday from the age of two, sometimes for six weeks at a time, and how his uncles were part of various sound systems, “thumping out music from their rooms. I just grew up with basslines”.
"Either I’m underappreciated, or underpublicised. Or, if I really want to look at it – ‘cause I’m like this – I can take it on myself and say maybe it’s something I’ve done, maybe I’ve underachieved"
It was as part of the legendary N.A.S.T.Y Crew, though, that Kano sharpened his skills and began to take music more seriously. The pioneering grime group – which included now household names like D Double E, Ghetts, Jammer and Footsie – came up through pirate radio station Deja Vu FM in the early 00s, where their late-night show became the most popular destination for grime. Though the group later disbanded due to internal disputes, their trailblazing mindset and collaborative spirit carried on into Kano’s subsequent work.
Kano’s solo career has been punctuated with outstanding collaborations, starring alongside Chip, Wretch 32 and Wiley across pirate radio and in the charts. Yet the artist to whom he seems to owe the most is fellow N.A.S.T.Y member and Newham Generals co-founder, D Double E. “[Double] made me believe,” says Kano. “He’s the father for me… there was no one like him before, and there won’t be anyone after.” There are several sides to D Double, reveals Kano, that the public don’t see. “He’s a deep thinker, a perfectionist. Even some of his ad-libs [are] written down.” How does he know all this? Because, as Kano divulges with the mischievous cackle of a cartoon villain, “he left a lyric book at my house once – and I read it!”
Another artist with whom Kano has long enjoyed a great rapport is Ghetts, who stars on Class of Deja alongside D Double – a song hailed by many as a new classic. The track’s urgency can be ascribed to how it was created, Kano and Ghetts writing the lyrics side by side in the studio and recording them on a single microphone, giving the song the feel of a euphoric east London rave. “[Ghetts] is my guy!” exclaims Kano with a broad grin. “He would say I never used to like him at first, but I was just overwhelmed by the energy of the guy. We’re fucking opposites, and that’s why we work so well together.”
In the early days of their friendship, Kano and Ghetts bonded over their love of artists with similarly masterful flows, like when Big L and Jay-Z traded verses on the Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Show. He studied them closely, honing his own style. Now, Kano can surely claim to be one of the greatest of his generation at riding a beat. When discussing how he flows on Good Youtes Walk Amongst Evil, his shoulders dip and his hands take to the air, as if sparring with an imaginary partner.
“I go off beat on purpose sometimes, to catch it back. It’s like this sometimes–” he sways in his chair suddenly, as if on a fairground ride, “–and that’s when you’re just playing around with people. These are things I always wanted to do, but no one else was doing it at the time. It wasn’t acceptable.” Warming to his theme, he breaks into one of his most famous verses from Ghetto Kyote. “When I came on the radio like, “I’m from the hood but it’s just home/ There ain’t no place like home, sweet home” – no one had done that. You know what I mean?”
Even though Kano’s flow reaches exhilarating speeds on Hoodies All Summer, this is a record whose many peaks are to be found in its most laconic moments, like the ode to a friend on Bang Down Your Door, or the lament of lost love on Got My Brandy, Got My Beats. “When you slow things down, you can’t get away with saying bullshit,” he explains. “There’s nowhere to hide.” He goes straight into another a capella rap, this time from Teardrops. “‘If they can spray-paint n***** on LeBron James’ crib/ That means a black card ain’t shit when that’s the shade your face is/ So basically we’re Kunta Kinte…’ And then the beat comes in.”
Like LeBron James, Kano has had enough commercial success to observe the enduring nature of racism; no matter how much he achieves, he will still be subject to it. His message to his people is therefore a simple but powerful one: let’s stop the in-fighting, because the prejudice that oppresses us is already severe enough. Hoodies All Summer feels part love letter, part polemic; a comfort and a companion, as he says on SYM, “for the mandem on the kerb.”
Hoodies All Summer is, somehow, a magnificent tapestry of all Kano’s public guises throughout his career. From track to track, he has the air of the crowd-rouser at carnival, the melancholic loner, the big brother who always has a spare tenner, the uncle with the wisest advice. Though a reserved and private soul working in the midst of an often raucous scene, he has offered up a work of compelling empathy. One that will ensure his influence will continue to resonate, from generation to generation.
Location: Hackney Empire
Hoodies All Summer is out now via Parlophone Records.
This feature appears in Crack Issue 105. Purchase an annual subscription and get the next 12 issues of Crack Magazine delivered straight to your door.